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Three matchups to watch against Duke

Can Northwestern win in Durham for the first time since 2015?

Clemson v Duke Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

After Northwestern (1-1, 0-1 B1G) secured its first win of David Braun’s tenure against UTEP, the ‘Cats will travel to Durham to face Duke (2-0, 1-0 ACC) on Saturday. Thanks to an Evan Hull fumble at the goal line in the dying seconds of Northwestern’s 31-23 loss against Duke last season, NU will look for its first win against the Blue Devils since 2016. The last time the ‘Cats won at Duke was the year prior — in 2015. Let’s dive into three matchups that’ll dictate the Saturday afternoon game.

Duke QB Riley Leonard vs. Northwestern’s pass rush

In Week One against Rutgers, Northwestern’s pass rush was nonexistent, allowing QB Gavin Wimsatt — a question mark heading into the year for the Scarlet Knights — to find success from the pocket. Although UTEP QB Gavin Hardison threw for more yards last week than Wimsatt did in Northwestern’s opener, the pressure got to Hardison who threw two interceptions. Northwestern’s pass rush improved drastically, going from no sacks against Rutgers to four against the Miners.

Against the Blue Devils, pressure is paramount to disturbing Duke’s standout QB Riley Leonard. In Duke’s huge win over No. 9 Clemson, Leonard went 17-of-33 for 175 yards, but more impressively dominated on the ground adding 98 rushing yards and a touchdown. During last week’s blowout win against Lafayette, Leonard finished a perfect 12-of-12 for 136 yards, a touchdown and 13 yards on the ground. A gifted athlete with his ability to run and throw the football, the ‘Cats need to win at the line of scrimmage, pressuring Leonard into errors and making things easier for Northwestern’s secondary on the back end. With a comfortable Leonard only meaning trouble for Northwestern, the ‘Cats need another big performance from Anto Saka and Sean McLaughlin, two standouts from a week ago. The pair will need to pursue the football and help the ‘Cats get off the field on third downs.

Duke’s Jordan Waters vs. Northwestern’s Cam Porter

With both teams finding success on the ground in their wins last weekend, the battle of the running backs could determine which squad comes out on top. Through two weeks, the Blue Devils have used a couple different backs in their balanced rushing attack, but graduate student Jordan Waters has emerged as Duke’s best option in the ground game. With 11 carries for 112 yards and two scores against Lafayette, Waters utilizes his size and physicality between the tackles, but he also has the vision and speed to hit the hole and get to the outside. A capable complement to Leonard’s legs, Northwestern will need to get into Duke’s backfield if it wants to keep Waters off the scoresheet.

Building off a 17-carry, 90-yard performance against UTEP, Cam Porter is ready to be Northwestern’s next potent running back. The senior looks agile, with good burst at the line of scrimmage and underrated elusiveness. After the ‘Cats’ rush-heavy emphasis worked well against the Miners, don’t be surprised to see Mike Bajakian lean on Porter’s legs early and often, taking some of the pressure off of the passing game. Whether its Waters or Porter, the run game will be a big storyline Saturday in Durham.

Duke’s Jeremiah Lewis vs. Northwestern’s offensive attack

If the name Jeremiah Lewis rings a bell, it’s because he played for Northwestern last year. Starting 12 games for the ‘Cats a season ago, Lewis finished the year with 70 tackles, four pass deflections and 3 tackles for loss from his home at safety. Now back at Duke, where he played prior to joining the ‘Cats in 2022, Lewis has performed well. He earned ACC Defensive Back of the Week honors for his performance against Clemson, mustering 11 tackles, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery — all while playing with a broken thumb.

With Lewis not playing in Duke’s last game against Lafayette, it’ll be interesting to see if he’s back on the field against the ‘Cats, but if he is, he’d likely have an impact thanks to his familiarity with Northwestern’s offense. Although the offense looks a little different with transfers Ben Bryant, A.J. Henning and Cam Johnson now taking heavy snaps, it has a lot of similarities from 2022 with Mike Bajakian still calling plays. If Lewis is good to go on Saturday, his familiarity with Bajakian’s play calling tendencies from a season’s worth of practices could certainly impact the game.